Friday, March 18, 2011

Fight Club Part 4: Neutral

Fight Club Part 4: Neutral

Neutrality is difficult because it doesn't exist. It is an ideal more than anything else. Yet we strive for it. Neutral means equal and without judgment. It means objective. It means all the things that we can't really do. Humans are subjective things; a wall is an objective thing. Nobody wants to talk to a wall.

So mediators find the balance. We are not walls, but our input does not favor one party over another. It is a complex dynamic that requires the mediators to remember their role. And remember that they don't look like brick walls.

I am a young mediator. I am not black, gay, latino, a woman, mentally or physically disabled, old, infirm, Middle-Eastern, or many other things. I do not appear to be any of those things to those I mediate. But the parties in a mediation meet me and do form a preconceived notion of who I am during the session. Similarly, I have a preconceived notion of them and who they are.

They and I bring these thoughts to the table and interact with these thoughts in mind. As a mediator, I have to be constantly aware of that bias and try to work around it. Bias doesn't just disappear. I work with it, use it as a tool though. Often, in the mediations I do, I get the feeling that the parents often look at me and think, “you don't know anything about raising kids.” And I don't. But I don't have to. I use that bias as a cover for asking questions that would otherwise be seen as stupid or obvious.

The stupid and obvious questions often lead to very rewarding outcomes. The parties often stop, think, and answer in a way that isn't part of their script.

Neutrality thus becomes a synonym for innocence and curiosity. If I can ask questions without believing I know anything, I can often help open new doors of communication. Communication, the mutual giving and receiving of information, can best be helped by my neutrality. If I am perceived to give a stronger voice or side with one party, then communication breaks down and bad things start to happen.

So I stay vigilant about the shifts in the safety and neutrality of the mediation. I continue to ask questions and help people communicate effectively. I try hard to give equal voice to everyone in the room. If I am successful, the parties find their own solutions together; hopefully someday they won't need me to be there. And that is neutrality: present without investment, compassionate without preconception, innocent and curious.